Book review: Shylock Must Die

David Herman admires a fine writer's last book


Clive Sinclair (right), who died in March, was a fine writer and a superb critic. Above all, he was one of the great short-story writers of his generation, the author of gems like Lady with the Laptop and Death and Texas.

As these titles suggest, Sinclair was clever and funny on the page as he was in life. His stories are full of knowing references to other books so it is not surprising that he is in his element writing a book of stories about Shylock.

In one, Tubal, from The Merchant of Venice, is depicted as a private eye in search of Jessica on behalf of his client, Shylock. Sam Spade meets Shakespeare with a dark twist at the end.

In another, a Shakespeare scholar goes to a conference in Venice with his daughter (another Jessica, of course). A Wilderness of Monkeys is set in the Belmont Hotel in Venice and If You Tickle Us reaches a climax at a production of The Merchant of Venice at the Globe. And when Shy Lokshen builds a casino in Las Vegas, he calls it The Doge’s Palace.

These references to Shakespeare interweave with Sinclair’s own life. The Salmon family live in Hendon, where he grew up. The Shakespeare scholar teaches at the University of St Albans, a town where Sinclair lived for many years, and the professor’s daughter, Jessica, is embarking on an English Literature course at UEA, where Sinclair studied and taught.

There is a darker moment involving inherited kidney disease which afflicted Sinclair for the last 20 years of his life and led to dialysis and a kidney transplant. But it is also funny, full of life and packed with references to popular culture. There are boxers, detectives, a Jewish racketeer, even a saxophonist with a taste for James Brown’s I Feel Good. The good, the bad and the ugly pop up all over the place. Eichmann and Trump, Salman Rushdie and, needless to say, two of our greatest living Shakespeare scholars (“He means Professors Shapiro and Greenblatt, along with my father the Supremes of Shakespeare studies”). And Sinclair being Sinclair there are a few Nazis and antisemites.

This, Sinclair’s last book, is full of references to death, and it sometimes feels personal. One character is shot, another will be murdered, and a third will die of kidney disease. The introduction is about Sinclair’s close friend, the Israeli artist, Yosl Bergner, who died last year. One narrator returns to say Kaddish over his father’s bones every few years on his yahrzeit. Amid all the jokes, there is real darkness.

Even this hardly prepares the reader for the end. The final story, Shylock’s Ghost, is a deeply moving farewell. It reminds me of an extraordinary film that Sinclair’s son, Seth, made for the launch of Death and Texas, which brought many of the characters from those stories to life.

This book, too, says something powerful about authors and the worlds and characters they create. It is a beautiful farewell by a fine writer.


David Herman is the JC’s senior fiction reviewer

Shylock Must Die

By Clive Sinclair

Halban Publishers, £12.99

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